In 1864, the famous French world traveler Louis Rousselet described "[a] vast sheet of water, covered with lotuses in flower, amid which thousands of aquatic birds are sporting..." at the shores of which bathers washed, surrounded by jungle greenery. He was not describing a lakeside scene or one of India's famous riverside ghats, but an ancient well, as big as a large pond.
In the northern Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, the problem of water is a profound one. At the edge of the Thar desert, the area sees torrential seasonal monsoons, and then watches the water disappear almost immediately. With summers routinely over 100 degrees, and silty soil that would not hold water in ponds, a practical solution was needed for locals and travelers along the local trade routes.
In the first century AD, the slippery shores of the major rivers were tamed by the construction of ghats, long, shallow sets of stairs and landings. The same approach was applied to the construction of a new kind of well.
The earliest stepwells most likely date to about 550 AD, but the most famous were built in medieval times. It is estimated that over 3000 stepwells were built in the two northern states. Although many have fallen into disrepair, were silted in in antiquity, or were filled in with trash in the modern era, hundreds of wells still exist. In New Delhi alone, there are more than 30.
Water plays a special part in Hindu mythology, as a boundary between heaven and earth known as tirtha. As man-made tirtha, the stepwells became not only sources of drinking water, but cool sanctuaries for bathing, prayer and meditation.
The wells are called by many names. In Hindu they are baori, baoli, baudi, bawdi or bavadi. In Gujarati, spoken in Gujarat, they are commonly called vav.
The architecture of the wells varies by type and by location, and when they were built. Two common types are a step pond, with a large open top and graduated sides meeting at a relatively shallow depth. The step well type usually incorporates a narrow shaft, protected from direct sunlight by a full or partial roof, ending in a deeper, rounded well-end. Temples and resting areas with beautiful carvings are built into many of the wells. In their prime, many of them were painted in bright colors of lime-based paint, and now traces of ancient colors cling to dark corners.
The use and conditions of stepwells began to decline in the years of the British Raj, who were horrified by the unsanitary conditions of these drinking water bathing spots. They began to install pumps and pipes, and eventually outlawed the use of stepwells in some places.
The remaining stepwells are in varying states of preservation, and some have gone dry. Local kids seem to find the ones with water to be terrific diving spots, which seems insanely hazardous.
One of the most famous stepwells is the Adalaj Vav, located 18 km North of Ahmedabad. It is an average of six degrees cooler at the depths at the end of 75 meters of stairs in this beautifully preserved five story well with octagonal landings.
It is one of the few wells historians with a well documented history - the tragic love story of its creation carved on a wall inside the structure in Sanscrit and Pali.
According to the story, in 1499 the area then known as Dandai Desh was brutally sacked and the ruler killed, leaving behind a beautiful young queen. The conquering king, a neighboring Muslim ruler named Mohammed Begda, fell in love with the bereaved queen, who demanded he complete the stepwell her husband had started if he wanted her hand in marriage. He agreed, and set to work building the most beautiful well, five stories deep, adding intricate carvings of leaves, flowers, fish, and animals in a blend of Islamic architecture and Hindu symbolism.
When the well was complete except for the crowning dome, Begda presented his work, and asked the queen to honor her promise. She inspected his work, walked around the beautiful well, said a prayer, and threw herself into the depths.
Nearby are the graves of six masons who worked on the construction. Legend holds that when the stone carvers were asked by ther proud patron whether they might be able to build another well so beautiful, their answer of "yes" sealed their fate.
Chand Baori in Abhaneri, near Jaipur, Rajasthan
Among the largest, if not the largest, and perhaps the most visually spectacular stepwells, Chand Baori is a deep four sided structure with an immense temple on one face. 3500 Escher-esqe terraced steps march down the other three sides 13 stories to a depth of 100 feet. The construction dates to the tenth century, and is dedicated to Harshat Mata, goddess of joy and happiness.
Rani Ki Ji Baori, Bundi
The small city of Bundi, Rajasthan is sometimes called "The City of Stepwells" for the more than 50 wells in and around the city. The Rani Ki Ji, or "Queen's Stepwell" is the most famous. It was built in 1699 by the spurned second wife of the king, who was cast aside after she bore him an heir. She turned her energies to public projects, building nearly 20 wells, including the 46 meter Rani Ki Ji. 40 feet wide at the top, 200 steps descend to the water.
Stepwell at the lost city of Vijayanagara, Karnataka
In the lost city of Vijayanagara there is a large step pond style well near the ruins of Hampi, similar to Chand Boari, but with four symmetrical sides.
Agrasen Ki Baoli, New Delhi
In 2002, more than two months of digging removed centuries of silt and trash from the Agrasen well in Delhi. Located close to the the famous Jantar Mantar observatory, the well is deep and rectangular in shape, 60 meters long, by 15 meters wide, with with 103 steps, some of which are submerged. The construction dates is unknown, but it most likely dates to the mid 1300s. A new appreciation for these wells come both from renewed cultural and architectural pride, but also in realizing that the ancient system of holding water still makes a lot of sense.